In the LDS church twice a year a General Conference is held in which top leaders of the church speak to the general membership. More often the objective of the talks are increasing faith and providing pastoral counsel, though sometimes their comments are clearly reacting to political or social movements or events. One favorite leader of mine and of many Mormons really, is Dieter Uchtdorf of the First Presidency. Often his talks consist of engaging stories (about airplanes) with the intent to be pastoral towards all and sometimes specifically reaching a hand out to those who feel disenfranchised from the church or on such a path. His comment in 2013 acknowledging mistakes made by leaders and members that were “not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine” was a hit with many as was his more recent address that used the story of “Potemkin villages” as an illustration in his encouragement of authenticity and genuine discipleship.
In the most recent general conference he opened with a discussion on doubt and he described skeptical and cynical people negatively, even associating them with Satan. After that bit he went on to give an address that I really quite enjoyed. For me, the later part of his address saved the beginning bit that I disagreed with but I’d like to talk about the first part because Uchtdorf was not alone in the collection of speakers to disparage doubt and use a fear-based approach towards those who look into church history or use the internet. I find it odd that in the information age the counsel seems to be to stay away from the largest information source ever to be on earth, but rather “just listen to us.” This is troubling because to me it shows how little trust much of the leadership has in the members (or perhaps the in church’s ability to remain credible in the member’s eyes), and I do find this lack of faith disturbing.
Stars and Wet Paint
The example given by Uchtdorf regarding our tendency to doubt uses a common humorous phrase that states that if you “tell a man there are billions of stars in the universe, and he’ll believe you. [But if you] tell him there’s wet paint on the wall and he’ll touch it just to be sure.”* It is a funny little thing to say but also deserves more examination. Consider the claim of billions of stars in the universe. It is a general claim that is not particularly challenging, nor does it seem strange. One person does not have the capacity or inclination to test this claim by spending inordinate amounts of time study the night’s sky or scouring scientific findings of astronomers to verify whether the statement comports with reality. Also if the claim is a bit off it doesn’t have much impact on anyone at all (if it turns out that there are actually much more or much fewer stars in the universe than a few billion as claimed, no one will mind or be affected in any meaningful way).
In the case of the wet paint more is at stake (one could ruin some clothing if they are not careful) and it serves a person well to know first-hand if the paint is wet and would affect their behavior, depending on if the paint is fresh and very wet, nearly dry or if the informant was far too cautious and in fact the paint is completely dry). Additionally, there is not much to testing the paint. Taking the to time to test the paint’s wetness by merely touching it gently with a finger cost’s a person little and will assure them of the caution they must take to avoid being soiled or may give them peace of mind that no real threat of clothing damage exists, once their test is complete.
This statement then applied to church claims perhaps not so helpful because much of the church’s simply portrayed historical and theological claims are problematized by the complex history that is readily available to anyone who has the time and inclination to read the many great works by historians interested in Mormon history. You see the church was founded well after the printing press but also early church leaders kept detailed notes of meetings in minute books and personal thoughts in diaries. There is much that has been preserved from the origins of the church through to today that is available for our examination. So the comparison of wet paint is actually quite apt since we can do quick checks to see how well the claims made in general conference and other forums comports with documents and other historical data. This information also affects our lives because it informs us how well-read or understanding our leaders are, with regard to Mormon history, and it can inform us how much trust we can have in our leaders (which goes downhill quickly when we find evidence fairly interpreted as priestcraft generated from our leader’s statements and their families).
The “trillions of stars” claim that is much harder to test and less problematic could be likened to the counsel more often given by Uchtdorf. When he lifts our hearts with sermons on God’s love, or asks us to serve, or as the latter portion of this talk asked us to question ourselves and whether “[our] efforts are leading [us] to the highest spiritual goals and values” we don’t question him. This is because like the claim of billions of stars being obviously true those admonishments are obviously good and nearly universally embraced, his encouragement to live up to those ideals are greeted warmly by all.
Skeptical of Cynics
Further, the disparaging comments about skeptics and cynics deserve attention. My take from Uchtdorf’s address is that skeptics and cynics are the same (they are not) and that they are simply looking to doubt and deny anything of value, particularly spiritual value. I think conflating distinctly different terms and further disparaging the general idea is not particularly enlightening. First of all I admit that he is correct in that the modern usage (since the 17th century) of cynicism is largely describing a disposition that is, as Oxford says, “distrustful of human sincerity or integrity” or “contemptuous and mocking.” Skepticism is different. Being skeptical is similar to being curious or the opposite of being guillible. Additionally a skeptic “does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found.”
Even those in the skeptical community distinguish between unfounded doubters with bad attitudes (cynics) and those that seek through a sometimes arduous process to find truth (or something approximating truth anyway.
“Just blanket disbelieving everything any authority tells you is not critical thinking, that’s not skepticism that’s being a contrarian . . . being a skeptic means separating what’s likely to be true from what’s likely not to be true by using some kind of process of evaluating logic, evaluating evidence, trying to step back and look at your own thought process . . . It’s not just a blanket “Oh I don’t believe anything, everyone’s lying” that’s just naked cynicism.”
Doubt is Fine
Joseph Smith was certainly a kind of skeptic, given all the questions he asked and the revising of the KJV bible he did. We all should be. For me life is not abundant or enjoyable without curiosity and investigation. Rather than continuing to stigmatize doubt and skeptics I think it would be more profitable to promote a more flexible idea of faith. Faith as belief is hard for me to hold to because I am deeply skeptical and I like to dig into things. Sometimes the information or evidence I find forces me to change my beliefs or drop them all together. Faith as trust or loyalty is better. In this way faith and doubt can coexist in the same mind, for I can certainly be loyal to my faith community while working through or managing my personal doubts. As American Christian theologian Paul Tillich stated “doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” Doubt causes us to keep seeking whatever it is we need to find. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather certainty is. Perhaps more discourses stigmatizing certainty would do the LDS community well. I think de-emphasizing our “knowledge” about such things that are largely unknowable in an empirical sense would minimize barriers between eachother and foster connection. Let’s get a talk out there speaking clearly against certainty, I actually think most would be relieved to take such position, but I’ve been wrong before.
Also Uchtdorf is not plagiarizing George Carlin like I have seen some suggest. It is just a common phrase that is functionally a modern proverb (see here and here). Similarly Ronald Reagan didn’t create the phrase “trust but verify,” he popularized it.